Carlo Ancelotti has been pleased with LaLiga leaders Real Madrid’s performances up to the halfway point of the campaign but warned there is a long way to go in the title race.
Karim Benzema’s first-half double was enough to see Madrid past Athletic Bilbao 2-1 on Wednesday, the striker becoming just the fourth player – excluding Lionel Messi (nine times) and Cristiano Ronaldo (seven) – to hit 30-plus LaLiga goals in a calendar year.
Toni Kroos assisted the first of Benzema’s seven-minute brace, the Germany international’s 77th assist in all competitions for Los Blancos since signing in the 2014-15 campaign – no Madrid player has managed more in that period.
Ancelotti’s side, who were without the likes of David Alaba and Isco due to COVID-19, managed to hang on for victory to move eight points clear of second-placed Sevilla heading into 2022.
The Italian boss, who is undefeated in six top-flight meetings with Marcelino, told reporters of his pride in the performance of his rotated side: “The victory means a lot to us, because of the COVID casualties, because of the complete game that has come out with a team that was not used to playing together.
“We must highlight this, the game of Nacho, Lucas [Vazquez], [Eduardo] Camavinga, [Eden] Hazard, [Federico] Valverde … They all had a great game.
“Most of the time it was a game of quality and great commitment, that’s the most important thing for me, almost like the three points, which is what always counts.”
Asked about his side’s lead and title credentials, Ancelotti responded: “We have done very well, but the balance is at the end of the season. So far, so good.
“We will see if something can be won, that is the requirement of this club. But now we have a week off, we deserve it.”
San Mames has been a happy hunting ground for Madrid, who are without defeat in seven league games in Bilbao – their best ever unbeaten streak there.
The home crowd greeted Benzema’s late removal with rapturous applause and Ancelotti hailed his forward’s performance alongside the work rate of Eden Hazard and Vinicius Junior.
Ancelotti added on Benzema’s reception: “The ovation to Karim was fantastic, this stadium has a spectacular atmosphere, I really like it. Karim has deserved it.
“They [Hazard and Vinicius] understand very well what the team has to do, in defence and attack, they did it well.
“They were committed and put quality, especially at the beginning. The difference is defending, we know this team can attack and score, we have very good individuals. So far, we are doing well.”
Indeed, Madrid have defended well, conceding just one goal across December despite facing Athletic twice, Inter, Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid.
Ancelotti was also buoyed on by the continued return of Hazard, whose career with the LaLiga giants has been hampered by injuries and fitness issues so far.
The Madrid head coach said on Hazard: “Yes, it works for the team, it is true that he had doubts about his physical appearance, but he did well, in the second half he fought, he tried things. He’s back, I agree.”
Madrid next face Getafe on January 2 after the mid-season break and will be boosted by the return of Rodrygo, who confirmed he had tested negative for coronavirus after initially returning a positive test last Thursday.
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